Many landlubbing researchers have had to drop everything this year to assist with the COVID-19 response, but Jewish-American scientist Jonathan Rothberg started his work fighting the pandemic at sea.
Nine months ago, Rothberg — a Yale PhD whose precedent-setting achievements were honored by the Obama administration in 2016 — was on vacation with his wife, Bonnie Gould Rothberg, and their five children, aboard the family’s superyacht, the Gene Machine. On March 6, Bonnie was called back to her job as a physician at a New Haven hospital to work the night shift. Husband and wife had to isolate from each other, not only because of her job, but because their daughter has a rare genetic disorder and needs to take immunosuppressive medication. With Connecticut becoming a hot spot and hospitals reaching capacity, the family quarantined offshore.
“We as boaters still fly a yellow flag before we clear into another country,” Jonathan tweeted on November 27. “When we arrived back in the USA in March 2020 I had a new appreciation for our yellow quarantine flag.”
Rothberg decided that a good way to use his talents in the pandemic response was to develop a home coronavirus test. The Gene Machine is equipped with a lab, and that’s where Rothberg began his work. In a Zoom call with The Times of Israel earlier this year, he described the boat as a coronavirus bubble. All supplies coming on board were cleaned, and anyone entering the ship had to isolate and test for COVID-19.
Thinking about a low cost easy to manufacture home test kit for #Coronavirus. Outline: #Nasal_swab (Q-tip) w/ freeze dried reagents for isothermal #DNA amplification with #COVID19 primers. Colorimetric readout by #iOS or #Android #App w/ #geolocation & #HIPPA compliant reporting. pic.twitter.com/P4PojWmC8o
— Jonathan Rothberg ???? (@JMRothberg) March 7, 2020
Rothberg is now back working at a land-based lab in his hometown of Guilford, Connecticut. He hopes that his test — called Detect — will receive approval from the FDA. He’s recruiting volunteers for a clinical trial, pursuing the initial goal of emergency-use authorization.
“Detect is a highly accurate, fast, and easy molecular diagnostic COVID-19 test that does not require expensive lab equipment or a trained technician, providing trustworthy results in about an hour,” he claims in a statement. “Detect is designed for use at your office, workplace, school and, down the line, even your home.”
Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration announced approval of the first rapid-results, at-home self-test on November 17. The circa-$50 Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit will initially only be available in California and Florida and requires a prescription.
Here’s what’s next
On November 16, Rothberg demonstrated how the test works during the virtual STAT Summit, a Boston-based conference whose theme this year was the question “What’s next?” regarding COVID-19.
“In molecular biology the last 20 years, we’ve had more and more complex tests, more and more complex data,” Rothberg said at the conference. “But we have to have something at home. President-elect Biden was saying [we need] something reliable, that we regularly use at home, available to everybody.”
During the STAT Summit, Rothberg noted that his son used Detect to test his roommate in Miami. When the roommate tested positive, he isolated from Rothberg’s son and their other roommate — which, according to Rothberg, prevented them from becoming exposed.
“We hope to have approval before the end of the year,” Rothberg said. “But we can’t wait for approval in terms of gearing up. We have 50 people who are full-time employees, and 100 people including consultants, who are manufacturing [the test] as I’m speaking to you, one million tests a month, financing 10 million tests a month.”
Fighting for those you love
Rothberg is actually working on the COVID-19 response across multiple fronts, involving four of his seven startup companies. His initiatives include not only the Detect coronavirus test but also the Butterfly iQ, an ultra-portable, whole-body ultrasound that he describes as the top-selling in the world; a groundbreaking portable MRI; and a drug called LAM002 that he says shows promise against COVID-19.
But we can’t wait for approval in terms of gearing up… as I’m speaking to you [we’re manufacturing] one million tests a month, financing 10 million tests a month
Howard Forman, a professor of radiology, public health, management and economics at Yale, as well as the director of its MD/MBA program, its executive MBA program and its health care management program, noted the uniqueness of Rothberg’s efforts.
“There are very few visionary scientists who also can be successful entrepreneurs,” Forman wrote in an email. “Jonathan is that rare person who can do both, with aplomb. I have absolute confidence that the Detect product will be a success: more important than ‘just’ its impact on the [coronavirus] pandemic is the possibility of using this platform for other endemic and epidemic outbreaks in the future.”
Thinking big is Rothberg’s style. He won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from then-president Barack Obama in 2016 in the wake of two widely heralded discoveries. First, he created fast-DNA sequencing, now called “next-gen” DNA sequencing, through which he achieved a breakthrough by sequencing an individual human genome — that of DNA co-discoverer James Watson. He subsequently created semiconductor chip-based sequencing, using it to sequence the genome of Gordon Moore, namesake of Moore’s law, on a semiconductor chip — another first in science.
“I think in everything I do, somewhere there’s a personal motivation,” Rothberg reflected at the STAT Summit. “For my first invention, fast-DNA sequencing, my son was not breathing. I wanted to read his genome. For the Butterfly iQ, my daughter went up to Boston… to do a kind of scan with specialized equipment that would do a volumetric ultrasound. I wanted to do all of that with a $2,000 device. I do everything because I want to make a difference for somebody I love.”
Rothberg told The Times of Israel that the immunosuppressive drug his daughter takes is the result of an initiative that he and his wife sponsored 15 years ago in an attempt to help her.
“I’ve lived my entire life this way,” he said. “Each decision we make, each and every one, make sure it saves the life of somebody you love.”
“I do think my Jewish heritage [plays a part],” he said, citing Yale professor Paul Johnson’s book “A History of the Jews.” “Maybe I feel, whenever we’re at forks in history, I have to do everything I can to help.”
Combating COVID on multiple fronts
Rothberg felt compelled to help with the pandemic response. When COVID-19 first struck, he was working on several endeavors while on vacation — a search for enzymes that would break down plastics in the ocean; and a quest for evidence of the theory of panspermia, which posits that life on Earth is descended from interstellar dust. He shelved these pursuits to work on a coronavirus test.
The Detect test differs from the antibody and antigen versions being developed by other companies. Rothberg opted for a specific kind of molecular test — a rapid molecular test, which he says “never existed before.”
He compares it to the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test in terms of effectiveness and claims that it is more accurate than an antibody or antigen test.
A molecular test is “the only way to test asymptomatic [people],” Rothberg said, differentiating it from an antibody test — which he said is used to diagnose people who already had the virus — and an antigen test — which he said is used to confirm a doctor’s diagnosis.
He is testing his employees and their families, using not only Detect but also a separate reverse-transcription qualitative PCR test or RT-qPCR test. He is offering this to the local community as well.
Meanwhile, Rothberg is monitoring his other coronavirus-related ventures.
His startup AI Therapeutics began looking for a drug to fight COVID in January, when its co-founder traveled to ground zero of the virus in Wuhan, China. Using the drug LAM002, or apilimod, AI Therapeutics obtained hopeful results, which Rothberg says are backed up by an independent Harvard lab and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded study of 12,000 drugs and compounds.
We have a drug that may stop the entry of the virus into the heart
“The number-one drug was our LAM002 [in the Gates Foundation-funded study],” Rothberg said. “It gave us additional supporting evidence.”
An FDA-approved drug trial of LAM002 is ongoing at Yale.
“We have a drug that may stop the entry of the virus into the heart,” Rothberg said, adding that this has been “shown, not confirmed.”
“If [a clinical trial is] shown to be effective, and we get emergency use authorization, that’s exciting,” Rothberg said.
The Butterfly iQ ultrasound, developed by Rothberg’s startup the Butterfly Network, is seen as a way for individuals to treat themselves at home, including for COVID lung.
“During COVID, there’s been an explosion of telemedicine,” Rothberg said. “Butterfly has had a very successful training program.”
There are currently limits. In the US, “on an ultrasound, you can’t scan yourself, you need a health care professional to guide you remotely,” Rothberg said, although self-scans are allowed in other countries, including Italy.
“We’re working with the FDA and other agencies to allow us to allow people to scan themselves,” Rothberg said.
Hyperfine is promoting its portable MRI as an option for overburdened hospitals.
“All of our institutional inventory has gone to hospitals,” Rothberg said. “They use it to screen for COVID and COVID complications in the brain.” He added that the portable scans have been approved by the FDA as well as almost 60 other countries.
All of our institutional inventory has gone to hospitals
A family affair
Rothberg knows the glory that scientific discovery can bring. He remembers being honored by Obama, who made the day memorable not only for Rothberg, but also his family.
“Obama only gave gift baskets to two people [in attendance] — my two youngest kids,” Rothberg said. “He fell in love with them. He whispered on stage that I have beautiful children.”
Ultimately, for Rothberg, it’s all about benefiting those he loves, and helping the less fortunate. He’s proud that his portable MRI is being offered to 40 low-resource countries that never had telemedicine before.
As for his coronavirus test, he said, “The moment it’s approved, we’ll be able to increase testing to those who are most vulnerable and alleviate doctors. The goal is ASAP.”
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